Will The Next House Labor Committee Chairman Punt On Mine Safety?

Rep. John Kline (R-MN)

Back in April, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killed 29 workers, in the deadliest mining disaster since the 1970’s. Prior to the explosion, the mine, which is owned by Massey Energy, was cited for thousands of safety violations, but took little corrective action.

Under the Obama administration, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) — which did next to nothing under President George W. Bush — has been trying to build itself back up. In addition to taking a hard line with other Massey mines, the agency “has targeted 111 mines with high rates of safety violations, simplified the path to declare a ‘pattern of violations’ that allow MSHA to mete out stronger sanctions on troublesome mines and moved to ease a backlog of disputed violations that has tied up enforcement.”

But MSHA still lacks critical powers to shut down especially dangerous mines and to subpoena documents and witnesses during investigations. The late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) wrote legislation addressing these concerns, but it has languished in Congress and, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the incoming chairman of the House Labor Committee doesn’t feel any urgency to get it moving:

The bill passed out of the House Education and Labor Committee on a party line vote in July but never made it to the floor. Now with Republicans taking control of the House, it likely won’t get there in the new Congress. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the likely incoming chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, has said he wants to wait until the investigation into the Upper Big Branch explosion is complete before legislating.

Punting on mine safety would make sense for Kline, as he has shown little but contempt for workers during his time in the House. He has voted against minimum wages increases three times, and is a top advocate of the anti-union Secret Ballot Protection Act. When the House Labor Committee held a hearing on the Upper Big Branch disaster, Kline couldn’t even be bothered to show up.

Even if the bill somehow made it out of the House, it would run into the buzzsaw of the Senate, where new members like Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-KY) don’t believe in any mine safety regulations at all. According to Paul’s theory, mine safety rules will just magically appear, because if they don’t, “no one will apply for those jobs.”

The resurgence of the Labor Department (including MSHA) and its commitment to enforcing labor law has been one of the great successes of the Obama administration. Giving MSHA the tools to do its work effectively is critical, but it seems that such a step may no longer in the cards.